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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Nathan and Hannah Barger stand for a portrait with their dogs in front of their home on Bayonet Lane on Wednesday, April 22, 2020 in Hixson, Tenn.

In an industry focused on relationships that typically involves doing all appointments, showings and transactions in person, real estate agents have been forced to change the way they do business to conform with social distancing requirements amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Greater Chattanooga Association of Realtors is discouraging members from hosting in-person open houses, which would likely violate the ban on gatherings of 10 or more people, said Carol Seal, the association's CEO.

Realtors are embracing other ways to market their properties, such as virtual open houses and title closings online or in parking lots.

When agents do show homes, they follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocol for preventing spread of the virus, said Seal.

"Realtors adapt, and that's what we've done," said Brandi Pearl Thomson, a Keeler Williams Realtor and president of the Greater Chattanooga Association of Realtors. "We have a responsibility to our community to make sure that housing is available for those who might be vulnerable during right now. We must help where we can, and take all precautions to protect ourselves and community, and we must work to make sure that housing needs are being met during these times. That's who we are."

As a managing broker, Jennifer Grayson of Crye-Leike Realty said she has been holding meetings via Zoom to keep agents out of the office.

"I see a lot of our agents working hard to keep in contact with their clients," said Grayson, whether that is through social media or by sending an email to ask a client how they're doing.

From communicating with buyers and sellers to holding open houses, most of the agents' work is now done online, she said.

Grayson heads the GCAR's Multiple Listing Service (MLS) committee, which decided March 26 to disable agents' ability to schedule in-person open houses through its Flexmls system and allow them to schedule virtual open houses instead. Virtual open houses involve agents doing a live walkthrough of the property, and are scheduled by agents accessed via video links by brokers and the public through the Flexmls platform in the same way as with in-person open houses.

Virtual open houses differ from recorded virtual tours, which are banned from the shared listing service because they are considered branded items, said Grayson.

Not all clients care to see properties face-to-face, said Thompson, and that was the case before COVID-19. Thompson has been selling homes virtually for about six years.

"I've had clients who literally didn't see the house until the day we closed, and some who didn't physically see their house until a week after closing," said Thompson. "You just have to make sure you're extremely thorough."

That means not just showing the house, but also the neighborhood.

"You can virtually walk the street on Google Earth," Thompson said.

Most everything involved with the real estate business, including signing documents, can be done online, she said.

Now, the process just takes longer.

Before the pandemic, it took an average of 30 days to close on a house, said Thompson. Now it takes around 45-60 days.

Appraisals are about 10-14 days behind, said Thompson.

Lending was delayed because credit unions and banks were inundated with people applying for small business loans through the federal government's Paycheck Protection Program, she said.

Some sellers who put their homes on the market before the pandemic are turning down full price offers because they don't want the risk of additional people such as home appraisers and inspectors coming into their homes right now, said Thompson.

While there are some inspectors who are offering virtual inspections, said Thompson, those cannot take the place of an in-person inspection. But they can give the buyer an idea of pricing on repairs and tip them off to anything they may need to be concerned about, she said.

Grayson predicts that some of the technology real estate agents are adopting now will survive the pandemic. The likelihood of that happening grows with the longer this period of social distancing persists and agents continue to adapt to new ways of doing business.

Even amid the coronavirus crisis, real estate is regarded as an essential business and Realtors have still seen plenty of activity. Greater Chattanooga Realtor' key lock boxes were accessed 13,654 times from March 9 to April 9 and last month Realtor sold 452 homes. While last month's home sales were down 7.4% from a year ago and 5.5% lower than two year ago, the housing market has continued even as many businesses have shut down.

Last week, the Commerce Department said sales of new homes nationwide fell by 15.4% in March to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 627,000, after sales had fallen 4.6% in February.

The decline was expected, though economists say it will grow much worse as the country struggles with a shutdown that has thrown millions of people out of work and disrupted wide swaths of the economy.

Ben Ayers, senior economist at Nationwide, said that sales activity in coming months will take a significant hit from the government-mandated shutdowns and layoffs. But he said the outlook for the housing sector should improve as the virus impacts wane.

"Low mortgage rates and continued demand from the millennial generation should drive a rebound in housing activity later this year and into 2021," he said.

Thompson said GCAR has worked with the Tennessee Real Estate Commission to extend license renewal deadlines and enable continuing education courses available online.

Closing on a home sale, which typically involves a lot of human contact, has also required a great deal of adjustment for the parties involved.

To keep clients from having to travel, for two of her closings last week Thompson offered to help the sellers with repairs and handle minor details they would have normally done themselves.

Title companies have various ways of dealing with distancing requirements, with some limiting the number of people in a room at a time and telling people to keep the pen they use to sign documents. Others offer "curbside closings," in which clients sign documents either in their cars or at a table set up outdoors.

Hannah and Nathan Barger closed on their new home in Hixson April 10 using the curbside closing service at Foundation Title and Escrow off Shallowford Road.

They looked at homes in-person with local Realtor Katy Smalley of the Charlotte Mabry Team, Keller Williams, and made their decision in early March prior to social distancing requirements. They decided to move to Chattanooga when Nathan Barger took a job at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga as director of sports medicine, and Hannah Barger found a job as a registered nurse at Erlanger Hospital.

Their move could not be postponed, and social distancing made moving difficult.

"We can't carry a washer and dryer by ourselves," said Hannah Barger.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Emily Crisman at ecrisman@timesfreepress.com

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